Frank Serratore has developed a hard-won sense of whether a hockey prospect has the strength to successfully surf through the rigorous waves of studying and marching at the Air Force Academy.

If a recruit winces as Serratore describes cadet life at the academy, the coach knows it's time to move to the next prospect.

"We can't recruit the wrong kind of kid," Serratore said. "And the wrong kind of kid is somebody who is not willing to embrace all that the academy is away from the athletic field.

"We don't have any kids wanting to be the next General Patton or whatever. We don't have any kids in our locker room who grew up with a picture of the Air Force chapel in their bedroom, but we have kids who eventually evolve into all we want them to be."

Basketball coach Dave Pilipovich is developing the elusive sense that has carried Serratore to five NCAA Tournaments while he kept his roster essentially intact.

The drain continues. Sophomore point guard Tre' Coggins could have become one of the most dominating stars in Air Force basketball history. Instead, he's another escapee. Pilipovich announced last week that Coggins and freshman center Darrius Parker would not return to the basketball team. This follows Cameron Michael's decision to leave the team last summer.

The Falcons, with four returning starters, might flirt with a .500 record next season in the Mountain West. But Coggins and Michael could have carried the team to a lofty destination. The Falcons always feature an array of hustling role players, but always lack swashbuckling offensive stars.

Coggins and Michael were never accused of lacking nerve, or shooting skill. They would have combined for 35 points a game next season.

If they had not departed for a less strenuous college existence.

I often hear from readers who skewer departing Air Force athletes. These readers question the character of these athletes, call them bad kids.

Pilipovich bristles at such talk.

"Leaving here doesn't make you a bad person," he said. "It means you want something different from life."

I agree. Coggins, Parke, Michael and others discovered marching to breakfast and keeping their rooms spotless failed to fit their profile.

"There was a lot of unnecessary stress, and just a little too much on my plate," Michael told me last summer. "I was getting overwhelmed on a daily basis. I really didn't want to do the military."

As Pilipovich points out, departures are common in college basketball. Nevada sophomore star Cole Hoff recently left the Wolf Pack to play for Creighton.

Hoff's exit was about basketball. The Air Force exodus has little or nothing to do with basketball. It's about the military slice.

These struggles are not new. In 2007-08, Stephen Sauls delivered a dominating, electrifying season as point guard at Air Force's prep school.

But he couldn't handle the military demands.

"I don't have a choice to be myself," he told me the day he departed the prep school. "Being here killed my spirits."

Serratore, heading toward his 18th season, is quick to say it required years to understand academy culture and even longer to comprehend who could handle the rigors.

Pilipovich endures the same long learning process. As he waves goodbye to Coggins and Parker, he's sad. He's also wiser.

"If we're always selling and always convincing a prospect, it's not going to work," Pilipovich said. "If he doesn't have two feet in when he comes here, if he hits that first hurdle, that first speed bump and says, 'This ain't for me,' then it's not going to work."

And so the search continues. Serratore and Pilipovich and football coach Troy Calhoun face a complicated challenge as they try to form teams that can win in the future.

They seek American teens who can excel on the court and in the rink and on the field and also thrive while marching and studying.

What a grueling search.


Twitter: @davidlukeramsey